Kathakali’s stylized performance combine five forms of fine arts: painting, literature, music, acting, and dance. Each of these art forms is fundamental to the success of a performance.
Kathakali performers wear elaborate and intricate makeup and gorgeous and colorful costumes. It takes three to four hours for an actor-dancer to transform into a character. They lie on their backs and relax while makeup artists paint the colors and apply rice paste and paper border, chutti, framing the face. Chutti draws the attention of the audience to the performer’s facial expressions. The costumes and makeup in Kathakali are not exclusive to each character; they are divided into six groups based on the general nature of the characters. Green and red are predominant colors in the Kathakali makeup. Noble male characters wear Pachcha (green) makeup. Makeup of characters with an evil streak is Kathi (knife). They have a knife-shaped pattern on either cheek in red pigment over the base green makeup. In addition, a small white ball is fixed to the tip of the nose and another on the forehead. Hunters and cruel characters wear black makeup called Kari. The Thaadi (beard) makeup has three variations – Evil characters such as demons wear Chuvanna Thaadi (Red Beard) – primarily red makeup and a red beard, evil and scheming characters wear Karutha Thadi (black beard); lower parts of their faces are painted black and they wear black shirts while Vella Thadi (white beard) is used to portray Hanuman. Women and ascetics have glossy, yellowish makeup – minukku. Theppu is a catch all makeup category for birds, swan, Narasimha, Kali, and others.
Costumes consists of long-sleeved top, yards of heavily starched underclothes wrapped around the waist to give bulk, a mid-calf length outer skirt above the underclothes, and several decorative accessories. Most male characters wear long wigs that hang behind their intricately carved large headdresses. They attach long silver fingernails on their left hands and apply a small amount of an herb in the lower eye lid to make them red. Female costumes are less abstract and bulbous.
To attain the high degree of flexibility and muscle control, a Kathakali performer undergoes strenuous training and periods of ayurvedic massage. The actor-dancer also learns concentration, skill, and physical stamina required for his demanding role through a disciplined training based on Kalarippayattu. At a young age students start this long, intense, and meticulous learning process that lasts eight to ten years. Dancers undergo special practice sessions to learn control of their eye movements.
In a traditional performance the two on-stage musicians, stand at the back of the stage and sing. The script is in the form of lyrics in a vocal style called Sopanam, a style of elaboration and repetition. The lead singer marks the rhythmic beat on the gong and the other on a pair of cymbals. The percussion orchestra of drums consists of chenda, maddalam, and edakka. Chenda is played with two sticks, Edakka with one stick and Maddalam with both hands. In addition to the drums, the gong and brass cymbals held by the singers maintain the rhythmic cycles of the performance. There are no wind or string instruments in Kathakali orchestra.
Arangukeli, drumming sequence, announces the beginning of the performance. Two people hold the Thiraseela, hand-held curtain, as the vocalists sing a prayer hymn. The opening pure dance Thodayam is performed behind the curtain by junior actor-dancers. Thodayam is followed by Purappad. The popular lyrics for Purappad are in the praise of Krishna or Rama. Next the long vocal and percussion performance, Melappadam, provides vocalists and percussionists an opportunity to display their musical accomplishments.
Thiraseela (hand-held curtain) is used on the Kathakali stage for the entry and exit of characters, to indicate change of scene, and for thiranokku, curtain look, associated with the entry of wicked and monstrous characters in Kathi (knife), Kari (black) and Thadi (beard) costumes. They hold the curtain with both hands and bring it down slowly and show emotions of love, majesty, and anger.
After Melappadam, the story play begins with Cholliyattam. The actor-dancers dressed in elaborate costumes and makeup enact the story purely by the movements of the hands, facial expressions, and bodily movements while the musicians sing the lyrics accompanied by percussion. Dance though important, is not the main feature in Kathakali. Both the choreography and interpretative dance sequences are decided by the dramatic content of the play. While the pure dance elements require great skill, the quality of the performance is ultimately judged by the dancer’s interpretation of the role in mime. The dance movements are often explosive rather than delicate. Dance sequences are limited to Thodayam and Kalasam performed in the thandava style when the music comes to a finish at the end of each scene.
The facial expressions of the artists are based on Natyashastra and are classified into navarasas or nine expressions. Actor-dancer conveys a range of emotions through his facial expressions and eye-movements. The story is interpreted by symbolic mudras (hand gestures) that convey a whole world of emotions. There are 24 basic gestures, and their various combinations form the sign language used to narrate the story.
Today besides Kalamandalam there are several excellent institutions for Kathakali training including Margi, PSV Natyasangham, RLV College, Kalanilayam, Sadanam, Kalakshetra and Darpana. The International Centre for Kathakali at New Delhi has an ongoing project of producing new plays based on traditional, mythological, historical stories as well as European classics and plays. In recent years, various plays including Shakespeare’s King Lear, Goethe’s Faust, and Manava Vijayam (people’s victory) were produced and staged. These experiments, though well received, have not attained the popularity of traditional plays.
Kathakali is also thriving beyond the shores of India. The David Bolland Collection at the Rose Bruford College in UK is a remarkable archive primarily devoted to Kathakali. This extensive Collection was developed and preserved over four decades and includes material dating from the 1950s and records performances by some of the finest actors and musicians. Kalamandalam Vijayakumar through his Kala Chethena Kathakali Company offers exhibitions, performances, and workshops in the UK, India, Germany, Brazil, Indonesia, Finland, Canada, and Ireland. Kathakali’s influence on classical and folk dances of Kerala are visible in the folk dance Kaikottikali which uses many Kathakali songs for its music; and Kerala Natanam, a dance style based on Kathakali techniques developed by Guru Gopinath.
Kathakali has always adapted changes, but in a subtle way, and maintains much of its original stylized form, rich in its theatrical traditions. Though hugely male-dominated, increasingly women participate as Kathakali actors, musicians, and teachers. Actor-dancers and musicians of the troupe Tripunithutra Vanitha Kathakali Kendram are all females. With the introduction of electricity almost all performances are lit with larger electric lights. The oil lamp is still lit at the center of the stage for the ritual inauguration of the performance. The modern trend is towards staging condensed versions or individual scenes from of epic plays in plush auditoriums for two to three hours.
Adapting to circumstances, absorbing, and assimilating changes, and evolving through innovations Kathakali flourishes as a premier classical art and continues to captivate audiences worldwide.
Originally published in Heritage India Volume 4, Issue 2 May 2011. My sincere thanks to Heritage India for the permission to publish this article on my website, and Sidharth Kallor and Thulasi Kakkat for the beautiful photographs.